The Long Game

A whirlwind weekend is coming to a close, today will be just as busy and yet the string of holy moments deserve to be considered each on their own. A vision begun over a year ago for a ministry pursuing restorative justice culminated in a 13 hour training with 25 folks who are interested in exploring mentoring relationships with those returning to the community after incarceration, those who are on supervision with the probation department. Each step of the wondering, wishing, planning, researching came together as we learned from a man who traveled from Vermont to help us establish the structure and resources and boundaries to take the next steps. His evidence-based approach has proven results and his wisdom was astounding. He gave to us freely, he challenged us deeply, he gave us much more than his presence for the 4 days we have spent with him. While I celebrate him, I am also in awe of those who chose to participate, those who supported us by providing meals and cleaning up the kitchen. The broad base of encouragement we have received allowed us to be fully present, to not miss a word.

I thought originally I was moved to be involved in this project after reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, a book which spoke to my social work heart. After developing a relationship with the men and women at the local probation department, later interviewing my own officer from almost 30 years ago, I thought I was doing this for my own healing. I even considered I was doing this because I had lost my son after 4 years of his own incarceration, it was 3 years ago today that we picked him up from prison to bring him home quickly and then on to his half-way house before he could finally return completely to our nest. I thought I wanted to be involved in this ministry to provide what my son lacked, a circle of support and accountability that would ensure a greater chance of success. I am motivated to save another mother’s child, even while I mourn the death of my own. Or maybe it was the echoes of the voices of women I left behind in prison, those who begged me not to forget them, to do something, anything to make their lives better. Each step along this journey has proven that my deep involvement with the ministry is personal, is healing to me as well, even as I see how it is already touching the lives of others.

We watched d a documentary of the Vermont program in action, we listened to the stories of  folks who are the core members of these circles as their lives post-incarceration unfolded.  Ugly resentment and jealously rose up in me as I desperately wished we had started this program 3 years ago so my son could benefit even as I watched a young man battle with his addiction and eventually return to prison. I became so invested in his success that when he fell, I was heartbroken again, tears too numerous to discretely swipe away covering my cheeks. And yet, and yet, there is hope.

Hope in the questions and searchings of those who attended the training. Hope in the commitment of those who filled out paperwork to come along side those struggling in our community. Hope in leaving where we are comfortable to step into an unknown, a place with no guarantees of big joys or happy rewards. I found hope and healing being in the presence of a community that is willing to see addiction and violence and manipulative behavior and then look deeper. I found the washing away of stigma as the flood waters of mercy and acceptance flowed around the room and my heart broke some more but in the best possible way.

I cannot not see the timing in this all, the fact that the grief group I agreed to attend begins tonight, an expected circle of my own of support and accountability, a place to look at my aching heart and my lost dreams and find comfort. I cannot not see the lights above the stairways at every entrance to the courthouse, small circles of light that shine on everyone who passes through the doors, lights that were shown to us at our very first meeting with probation, something you have to look for, that are missed everyday and yet they are unmoving, they are constant. I can see God deeply present in all we are doing, reminders of His love and unrelenting pursuance of our souls, of mine.

While I am filling my days with activity, pulling on stands of connection in order to avoid the overwhelming sadness that surrounds me, maybe I could be accused of avoidance, of not facing the loss and grief and devastation head on. I certainly point that finger at myself often enough. This weekend though, all the days and weeks preceding, meetings and copies and emails and planning, have kept me returning to the church, kept me within my safe circle where I can be vulnerable and authentic and still contribute to something bigger than the hole in my heart. That very willingness, that draw to connect, to accept the grace that is freely offered to me, I know I am merely riding on the backs of those who have stronger faith, deeper spirituality, less doubt. And that is okay. We all need to be carried sometimes, we all reach out, we lift others along the way too, if we are truly committed to this Jesusy thing. In the midst of all that is wrong and broken, I am borrowing the hope of others, the joys in possibilities, the new beginnings and the shared  pain of endings.

I see you God, I see what you are doing in placing those who deserve my trust right in my path, knowing that one day I might just extend that trust to you. The long game, where ultimately I offer up my entire life and heart to you, I see it. Today I can give the pieces that reflect your light, ever crowding out the darkness that once controlled my choices. This day I will rejoice a bit and be glad of new ministries and circles of support and accountability and maybe find some rest.

 

 

Reflecting Our Truth

Having determinedly pushed God away, refusing His comfort during this time of grieving, casting blame at this Savior who forsake my son during his most desperate time, I recognize that I am choosing this trial separation. What is making it extraordinarily difficult to maintain are all of the people who radiate grace and just keep showing up. The word “blessing” has snuck back into my vocabulary, it slips out while I am talking before I realize it. Even as I search for a different word, a petulant child trying to dig into my position, I see that I absolutely cannot deny what is happening. More and more I find myself inching closer to the One who knows my shattered heart, who seems to want to hold me as I sob, all because I cannot keep Him away while accepting the care of his obedient children. I know what moves their hearts to such gentleness with ours, what compels them to exhibit kindness and to create safe places for our grief. The hands and feet of God, these people and I whisper that we are blessed even in the depth of our loss.

The most precious gift I have received during this last month is not the meals, so many meals that have nourished us and prompted us to take in sustenance. I can’t keep track of all the food that has shown up at our home and at church while I am there quietly stepping back into ministries. These full dinners and small containers of soup for lunch tell me more than just that we are loved. There is a deeper message in them, though, one that is filling me with each bite: we are worthy, those who know and love us want us to continue living. We are valued. As critical as these gifts are, they are not what has touched me most.

The cards and texts and messages are easing words of comfort beyond the walls of pain I was erecting. While I first rejected the snippets of scripture and the encouragements to draw near to God, I felt the tug with each envelope I opened. But more than the physical cards, I have accepted the thoughts behind them: that we are being held up by those around us and our grief is real, is palpable and that our loss is recognized. Slowly I will read and reread each piece of mail we have received but the essential message is the same as from those who brought us and continue to bring us meals.  Our loss and pain and worth are validated.

One day I will tell you about a framed picture that we received, a gift so thoughtful and touching I am still struggling for the words to describe what it means to us. I will tell you about those who came from others states for the purpose of hugging us while we cried. The stories of kindnesses we have been blessed with (see how that word is entering my vocabulary again?) are too numerous to list here but they all add up to the same message. Even as we continue to hear that folks don’t know what to say, their actions are shouting that we are sheltered by their faith, that we are cushioned by their desire to continue relationship with us even as we have little to give back. Yet there is more.

Losing a child, even an adult child, has pushed me to reflect even more than I normally do, on what mistakes I have made. I can list those easily, I have paid dearly for my sins and for many years I lived in shame. Breaking free of that existence with the help of dear friends, pastor’s and my therapist more recently, I recognize I am created not to be tormented with my past or even my daily life, but to be cherished as well. Thus the most vile poison that has been directed at me by those who supported my son’s use hurt, like a fun house mirror that distorts reality, I see what they are trying to create and wonder about the sheer meanness and evil that resides within them.  Yet their words do not stick, they cannot take root in my soul. That ground has been nurtured and fertilized for many years now, the seeds of faith and the redemptive love of God have readied this soul for the attacks that would come, for the evil that lives in the hearts of some, to find no resting place within me. I thought I had to live a guarded tiny life, what I have learned now is that by opening myself to the grace of God, I truly could withstand this onslaught. I have no secrets and ugly words still hurt but I do not accept them as indications of my worth.  I already know who I am. That is the gift that I continue to receive from all those who have chosen to enter our grieving space. A mirror, reflecting back who I truly am to God and to those who love me and have known me for decades and months alike.  The most precious offering of all, this telling of who I am as I stumble about in the fog, losing the ability to see clearly.

We have history, these truth tellers. We share a faith that requires us to do and be better and offers grace when we fall short. We live our days and weeks and months and years together, we show each other who we are and who God wants us to be. We take off our masks and expose tender vulnerabilities. And when horrific events transpire, we take the shattered shards of each other’s mirrors and reflect God and grace and Light without ever thinking to use those broken pieces of life to cause harm. These are my people, I am blessed to have them all around me.  I didn’t choke on that word this time, I can admit that even in the midst of this, God is with us. No greater gift can be given than leading someone back to the truth.  Yes, we are blessed by you all.

Sunday is a Long Day

The problem with my faith community is that they take the community part seriously. The people at my church don’t know how to ignore a sister who walks in pretending she is wearing an invisibility cloak. They still hand you a precious piece of art created to show you God, art that is beauty when all you can see is ugliness. They hug you, ignoring your crossed arms and furtive eyes, they don’t ask how you are, they already know. Instead they say they care about you, they are praying for you. They know you have run out of prayers.

When you paste on a smile and hand out bulletins, this community includes people who call you aside and share that they are broken as well and ask for a hug. What is wrong with these people, meeting you right where you are? When you sit outside of service, avoiding music that may penetrate your armor, play mindless games on your phone to communicate you are not to be approached, still they come. These people still sit with you, a black sweater and closed body language is not enough to push them away. One of the older members tells you she is too angry to really talk but she prays specifically for you every day. She doesn’t know that you love her from afar. Another young woman sits by you, this young woman you have watched grow from a tween into this amazing woman of faith with poise and beauty, who sings God into your soul. You didn’t want to hear her voice. Her eyes were wet with unshed tears, she was carrying your pain. How can you tell her to go away when she is someone you always draw near to? What a horrible community of faith.

During the service you actually attend, you ignore the opportunity to share your burdens. You ignore the requests to look around at this community of faith, to see, really see the brothers and sisters. You leave when the music gets too close. You ignore the sermon, try to empty your mind. God can see your crossed arms and angry face. He sends his people to do his work. They listen, this horrible community. Finally thinking you have survived this brush with God, this God who refuses to heal your broken heart, the service ends. A young woman from the praise team approaches and hands you a letter. You are just trying to pack up Legos and Sunday school papers, cups of donuts and orange juice. She wraps you in arms she had just lifted up to God as she carried her song and the congregation to the heavens. She wore no armor, she came straight from the altar to you. Why can’t these people understand you are lost and alone and only going through the motions?

Sunday is a long day, longer than a couple of hours spent at church. When you have a horrible community of faith you have to go home and read a letter so pure it reads like a psalm, a lament, a strapping on of your yoke. Your heart breaks open and begins healing as you hide the letter and then pull it out over and over all day, never dare to read it again, just enough to have it close by.  A letter of promises and hope and refusal to allow you to wander away. You have to look at a picture created with love that speaks into your pain but won’t leave you there. No amount of noise can drown out the echoes of those voices who spoke your ache when you couldn’t.

You went to church with a plan to show God just what you think of Him. You might attend but you weren’t going to participate. Apparently He didn’t care if you weren’t full of worship. His horrible community of faith truly are His hands and feet, they are His voice when you can’t hear Him. He knows you will listen to these voices, you will accept these hugs and letters and paintings. These sacred offerings will carry you back into His arms when you are ready. What a horrible community of faith.